Dan Roberts
Contributing writer

7 questions CIOs must ask about the office of the future

Feb 15, 202210 mins
InnovationIT Leadership

Renowned futurist Bob Johansen discusses the innovative value of strategic foresight and how to prepare for the ‘flexible, shape-shifting office of super minds.’

Empty corridor with a series of glowing doors [options/ alternatives/ opportunities/ future/ next]
Credit: Wacomka / Getty Images

Futurist Bob Johansen is a distinguished fellow with Silicon Valley-based think tank Institute for the Future (IFTF) and the author or co-author of 12 books, including Leaders Make the FutureThe New Leadership Literacies: Thriving in a Future of Extreme Disruption and Distributed Everything and Full-Spectrum Thinking. His next book, Office Shock: Creating Better Futures for Living and Working, tackles a subject every CIO I talk with is grappling with today: the office upheaval created by COVID-19.

As Johansen points out, the upending of the traditional office has created opportunities to reimagine how and where office work can and should be done. It also opens new possibilities for human connection in more meaningful ways. Even in a highly uncertain future, we can make smart choices to create better ways of living and working, he says. But first, we’ll need to reboot our expectations about where, how, and why we work.

Johansen joined me on two episodes of the CIO Whisperers podcast to unpack the implications of office shock and “officing” on the future of work and to explore how CIOs can think from the future back to make better decisions today. He also discussed the skills and qualities that will define those companies that are able innovate quickly and get early mover advantage. What follows are highlights from those conversations.

Dan Roberts: You often talk about the discipline of thinking “future back.” Can you share more about what you mean by that?

Bob Johansen: It’s so noisy in the present, and companies are just struggling to get by, so they are relying on the means of the past. What we’re teaching is that, especially in these highly uncertain times, if you go out to the future and think backwards—think future back—it’s actually easier to see where things are going. And it encourages you to be clear about direction but flexible about execution. So, it’s still a very noisy present, but at least you can have clarity of direction.

Bob Johansen, Distinguished Fellow, Institute for the Future

Bob Johansen, Distinguished Fellow, Institute for the Future


The big question CIOs are asking is right now is when should we go back to the office. But you say that’s not the first question they should be thinking about.

It’s a reasonable question, but for us, it’s number six out of seven of questions we’re asking. The first question is, why do you want to go to the office in the first place? What’s the purpose of the office? I think that’s where you need to start. And when you think future back, you can begin to see how offices can be exciting places with purpose, enabled by new ways of working, empowered by new technologies to achieve real impact.

But question number one is, why do you go to the office at all? Purpose is so important, particularly in a VUCA [volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous] time like this. There is new research that we talk about in our work from the Blue Zones project that says purpose-driven people are happier, healthier, and live up to seven years longer. Purpose-driven people who work for purpose-driven organizations are happier, healthier, and live up to 14 years longer, and the companies perform better. Purpose is so key to all of us, and the office certainly plays a role in our personal sense of purpose and also our community sense of purpose. So, there’s a spectrum from the individual purpose to the community or the social purpose.

Can you also talk briefly about the other questions CXOs should be asking? 

The second question is, what are the outcomes you aim to achieve by officing? Shareholder value is the kind of classic spectrum, but increasingly, companies are being asked about social value, or community value. The third is impacts and, in particular, climate impacts. It’s not enough to say zero impact. The question now is, is your office regenerative? That’s going to be increasingly important over the next decade.

Then we ask, how will you extend or augment the intelligence of your office? Because if you take the future-back route ten years ahead, we’re all cyborgs, we’re all augmented by digital aids in some way. HR won’t be able to isolate the human from the digital resources. So, over the next decade, we’ll need to answer the questions of what humans can do best and what computers can do best.

The fifth question is, with whom do you want to office? What’s the right mix of people? You can think of this as the future of diversity and inclusion. It’s obvious, thinking future back, that we’re going to be extremely diverse ten years from now in our offices. The question is, how can we be purposely different, because we know diverse teams are more productive and innovative. Diversity is here to stay, so how do we embrace that? Inclusiveness and belonging are the hard part.

And now we get to the question of where and when. The spectrum here is from physical offices to the metaverse, and it’s really going to be a meta, meta metaverse. It’s going to be a nested network of networks with increasing blended reality potential, and the kids are going to be much better at it than we are.

The last question is, how do you design an agile and resilient office so you can be flexible in how you respond to the VUCA world.

You have a trilogy of books that delve into the leadership skills, literacies and mindset leaders need for the future. Could you talk about what inspired those and highlight two or three skills that CXOs should be particularly focused on right now?

It began with my first visit to the Army War College, where I was introduced to the concept of VUCA. That prompted the ten skills to thrive in the VUCA world. I realized, however, in using it, that skills weren’t enough, that it required literacies or practices, these five disciplines. But then I realized there’s also a mindset that you need to thrive. I wrote the last book in the trilogy, Full-Spectrum Thinking, about that ability to think across gradients of possibility instead of just labeling and categorizing the way that many people do nowadays.

Right now, I think clarity is the most important skill. In a VUCA world, you need to be very clear about direction, but very flexible about execution. You can’t be certain. The future will reward clarity but punish certainty. Certainty is just too brittle.

That leads us into the reality of the present time, where we’re so polarized in thinking, and that’s very dangerous. As leaders, we have to calm things down and look for common ground without getting stuck in the polarization of one side is right and one side is wrong. Again, future back thinking helps, because if you look long, you can find your zone of clarity, you can find your common ground and what you do agree on, and then pursue that instead of arguing about what you don’t.

The third is what I call dilemma flipping. A dilemma is a problem you can’t solve and it won’t go away, but you can make it better. If you’re a leader, especially if you’re a C-suite leader, you don’t get to solve problems anymore. The people who work for you solve the problems. So, you’ve got to deal with the dilemmas, and if you’re not sure if it’s a dilemma or a problem, you’re better off assuming it’s a dilemma, because if it turns out to be a problem, you get extra credit because you solved it, and they didn’t think you could solve it.

We’re going through so much disruption and transformation, with the pandemic layered on top of it all, but there will be winners—those who are able to innovate and get early-mover advantage. What do they do differently?

It’s a readiness game. You can’t predict, but you can practice to make you more or less ready.

That’s where simulation and gaming comes in. You have to be able to anticipate the future and then try to create safe environments so you can practice in low-risk ways.

That’s part of the problem with where we are now. We weren’t at all prepared for Covid, even though we should have been. The risk was obvious if you look future back. The surprise was how poorly we reacted to it. Our minds are ripe for simplistic solutions, and in a VUCA world there just aren’t any. You’ve got to be able to engage with that uncertainty and be clear about whatever you’re investing in.

The IFTF is the longest-running futures think tank in the world, and it’s had quite an impressive track record over these 50-plus years. How would you describe the work that the IFTF does?

We call what we do a forecast, which is a plausible, internally consistent, provocative story from the future. Nobody can predict the future, so the way you evaluate a futurist is, does the foresight provoke insight that leads to a better decision? We’re not advocating any particular future, but we are advocating the value of thinking future back and the value of strategic foresight. Some of the future we’re forecasting right now around climate, around pandemics—I hope they don’t happen. But the insights that come out of it, that’s what we go for. We’re independent forecasters, and we want to provoke your insight, whether you agree with our forecasts or not.

When you think of the innovators of the future, what do their reimagined offices and officing look like?

The first word that comes to mind is flexible. Everything’s going to have to have flex. I use the term “shape-shifting organizations.” Hierarchies come and go, boundaries are more porous, they’re part physical, part virtual. I think the more digital we become, the more we’re going to value in-person experiences, particularly for onboarding and renewal and trust building, but we’re not going to be able to do it as casually as we used to be able to do it, and there will be ongoing precautions. We’ll be moving in and out of this for the foreseeable future, and we’re going to have to have offices that have that kind of flex. That means you’ve got to get really good at virtual, so that’s a real challenge for a lot of leaders.

The second thing that comes to mind is deeply digital. As I mentioned, we’re all augmenting already. The question is, how do we get from here to there? Right now, we have human resources and information technology. In ten years, we’ll have human-computing resources. Every HR person should be deeply digital and really interested in gaming, video gaming, simulation—that’s going to be the learning medium of the future.

I’m not as concerned about artificial intelligence. A lot of futurists think there will be cases where humans are replaced by computers, but that’s not the big story. The big story is humans and computers doing things together that have never been done before. Tom Malone at MIT calls these “super minds,” and that’s what leaders are going to have to be. So, if you think of that kind of office, it’s really a flexible, shape-shifting office of super minds. That’s my aspirational scenario.

Dan Roberts

Dan Roberts is the CEO of Ouellette & Associates Consulting, host of the CIO Whisperers podcast, and author of numerous books, including "Unleashing the Power of IT" and "Confessions of a Successful CIO."